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For Some, Hurdles Keep a Diploma Out of Reach

A conference at UCLA focuses on ways to keep Latino students from falling through multiple cracks in the `educational pipeline.'

April 04, 2006|Arin Gencer | Times Staff Writer

In the spring of 1968, thousands of Mexican American students walked out of East Los Angeles high schools in protest. They called for equal treatment in education, bilingual instruction, courses that acknowledged their cultural heritage and smaller classes in their overcrowded schools.

Almost 40 years later, observed participants at a recent UCLA conference on Latinos in education, little has changed. Latino students are still falling through multiple cracks in the "educational pipeline," they said.

Citing research based on the 2000 federal census, they said that slightly more than 50% of Latino students finish high school, 10% graduate from college and 4% obtain an advanced degree. By comparison, 84% of white students get their high school diplomas, with 26% graduating from college and about 10% earning advanced degrees.

The problems discussed at the conference were not new. Nor, in some cases, were the solutions.

But the sheer numbers now affected, particularly in Los Angeles and California, demand attention, said Daniel Solorzano, a professor in UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center.

"The pipeline is still hemorrhaging Latino students," said Patricia Gandara,, one of the participants and an education professor at UC Davis.

Latinos made up 72.8% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and 46.8% of students statewide, in the 2004-05 school year.

Hurdles at every level of public education increasingly equate to obstacles for Latino students.

The all-day summit at the UCLA Faculty Center last month served as a collective brainstorming session to remove those hurdles.

It was also a call to action, meant to inspire a sense of urgency about issues often relegated to academic studies, said Sylvia Hurtado, director of the university's Higher Education Research Institute.

Dozens of education experts and representatives from the UC, California State University and California Community College systems shared their research and experiences, then sought public-policy solutions to the challenges for Latino students, from kindergarten through postgraduate studies.

A recurring theme emerged: At almost every stage, the experts said, Latino students lacked both information needed to navigate the pipeline and a college-going culture that encouraged them to reach its end.

"The earlier you introduce the option of college, the stronger the possibility that they will attend college," said Dolores Delgado Bernal, an education professor at the University of Utah.

Higher education must be integrated into students' school experience and their personal lives, she added, to foster a sense that every child has university potential.

"Nobody's preparing these kids for what they need to do because of that absence of a culture" of college-going, Gandara said.

Teachers and counselors in every tier of education must be trained so they can better guide Latino students to and through college, said Tara Yosso, a Chicano studies professor at UC Santa Barbara.

The situation appeared especially bleak at the community college level, where about 30% of Latino high school graduates enroll, according to the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Students often don't know which courses they need to transfer from community college, said Linda Hagedorn, an education professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Faculty members are rarely equipped to help them either. At some schools, the student-counselor ratio is as high as 2000 to 1, she added, which exacerbates the difficulty of reaching everyone.

"It's just really difficult for students to take the initiative to go to the counselors and say, 'What courses do I need to transfer out?' " said Marilyn Gonzalez, 26, a UCLA senior who attended the conference. "They're never trained to take that initiative."

Gonzalez, who transferred from East Los Angeles College, said she is hard-pressed to remember teachers or counselors, in high school or community college, who urged her to aim for a four-year institution.

Instead, she was driven to pursue a degree with the birth of her son, at age 19, and the realization that someone's well-being depended on her.

"It's about making sure that we make the connection, and not waiting for students to make the connection," said Alfred Herrera, director of UCLA's Center for Community College Partnerships, which works to develop a motivation to transfer in students even before they start their community-college studies. "It's really about showing the students ... that they can belong to an institution like this."

Establishing benchmarks along the usually long journey through community college also could help, Hagedorn said.

One Santa Monica College student in the audience, who identified herself as undocumented, questioned the point of spending money to get a degree, especially when she couldn't use it.

"What is the motivation to transfer?" she asked. Other students expressed similar sentiments about the need to support the undocumented.

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